Have you ever started watching a TV show, looked at a character and went, one, this character is so annoying; and two, somebody needs some character development? Have you continued to watch the show, because ultimately it was interesting, but it was painful to watch the character make mistake after mistake to the point you became numb and thought, ‘Why does this character run straight towards trouble? If they get hurt, I am not going to feel sorry for them, serves them right.’ If you can relate, let us commiserate.
The characters in the grey
First, let me just clarify how I’m not talking about the bad guys, you’re supposed to dislike the bad guys. A sign of good character design for antagonists is them getting disliked by the audience. And this dislike is usually reserved for their actions, meaning the best kinds of villains, say the Joker or Thanos, are often understood and admired for their convictions and backstory, but the average person with a half decent moral compass would disapprove of how they choose to achieve their ideals or prove their point, usually from bullying all the way up to murder.
This article is not about the villains, but it’s also not about the heroes. It’s about good characters in the grey. Characters you know ultimately have their heart in the right place but make you want to strangle them for their bad behaviour and, even worse, their decision-making skills. The ambiguous line of morality is further challenged with the rise of magical realism in contemporary TV shows. It’s difficult to judge characters when they do not function in our mainstream realm of reality. Characters in the latest Netflix sensation, Locke and Key, are prime examples of tiresome good guys.
About Locke and Key
The story follows the Locke family as they move to their father’s childhood home after experiencing the traumatic shooting that took his life. In Keyhouse, the three children, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, discover mysterious keys that unlock various doors in magical ways. With the magic comes the revelation of imminent danger from a demonic entity that seeks to steal the keys for its own evil exploits. It is within the horror, thriller and fantasy drama genre, so it’s dark and not advised to be binged.
For me, it is clear what these children have to do: protect the keys at all costs. However, they manage to get into more situations to jeopardise this mission rather than honour it. Trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, the relationship between family members are fragmented. They don’t communicate and share their struggles, causing further cracks in their relationship. Both teens, Tyler and Kinsey, in their own ways, harbour immense guilt for their dad’s death which manifests negatively in their lives. Tyler tries to distract himself from the pain by going down the wrong path a.k.a engaging in aggressive behaviour and purposely letting people down. Kinsey tries to literally kill her fear and engage in reckless behaviour that eventually puts the lives of her friends in danger. Even the parents are full of secrets, the father having a dark past and the mother struggling with her alcohol addiction. In their moments of weakness, they aggravate me.
On the other hand, I swell with pride and admiration as all of them experience satisfying character development. As I continued the show and learnt more about their individual memories and collective past, I realized that I was being too hard on them as characters. As I glimpsed their inner kindness, I realised that they were simply being human, battling their own personal demons at the lowest points of their lives. Not many are likable at their lowest points but that is exactly what inspires growth.
An exercise on empathy
This has got me internalising that different flaws are necessary to create a complex set of characters. Sometimes, the grey in characters is the closest representation we have to the full human experience.
In the end, as an aspiring writer, I was left humbled at my conflicted emotions while watching this TV show. Personally, it’s easier to write characters that are heartwarming and precious. They say and do the right things, and their flaws are usually external and dealt with nuance. However, stereotypically unlikable good characters are usually the ones whose flaws are loud, destructive and stick out like a sore thumb. The former is relatable as it allows us to experience all the fuzzy feelings but the latter is relatable as it forces us to face the darkness in our pain and insecurities. Clearly, it’s obvious why one is easier to enjoy and root for than the other. I would say it’s the difference between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, Jonathan and Steve Harrington, Aang and Zuko or Deku and Bakugo.
This has got me internalising that different flaws are necessary to create a complex set of characters. Sometimes, the grey in characters is the closest representation we have to the full human experience. Nobody is perfect, we all have hurt someone and saved someone. To be human is to have this duality. Good writers know this. That is why they start off by showing you a limited perspective of a character, very two dimensional, well-intending to trap you in a prison of prejudice, then slowly humanise them by telling you their stories and allowing them to grow through creating opportunities for them to exhibit their righteous essence. As an audience, this is an exercise on empathy. To force us to see the bigger picture, to see potential in flawed characters and ultimately, ourselves.
Written by Geerthanaa Santhiran
Cover photo credits: TV Line